2009/06/23

Sorry Paul, They're Taking It Away

Kodak is taking Kodachrome film off the market. If you still have any you'd better get snapping as you'll only be able to get it processed through 2010.

Before Paul Simon's popular song, the film was already well known as the premier color slide film (they offered Kodachrome movie film as well). It was invented by two musicians, one of whom was both a violinist and a chemist, and marketed by Kodak beginning in 1935. The famous 1985 National Geographic portrait "Afghan Girl" by Steve McCurry was taken using Kodachrome. "Nice bright colors".


Other transparency films, like AGFA (I used AGFA for a time myself) and Velvia (a Fuji product), replaced it in popularity, but not because they were necessarily "better". Rather, the newer films were preferred by publishers for producing pictures that were more eye catching to customers. As one person described it, the difference was seeing a pretty picture with Velvia vs a feeling of actually being there when viewing the same subject taken with Kodachrome.


The reason for Kodachrome's color quality has to do with its emulsion - the thin layer of chemicals which capture the light while the shutter is open. Other films have three layers of emulsion, one each for red, blue, and green and also use chemicals called "couplers" which attach the colors across the layers when exposed to light to create the right mix of RBG. Kodachrome does not have those couplers so has a thinner emulsion. It uses three layers of silver halides - like regular black and white film - with each layer suspended in a different light filtering medium. The medium makes each layer sensitive to a different color. Instead of couplers, it uses a three stage developing process done after exposing the film to add the colors, which requires a separate stage for each of the three layers, resulting in sharper pictures and brighter colors. The lack of couplers in the film also means that the film lasts longer both before and after exposure. Kodachrome slides hold their colors for a long time. I have some Kodachrome slides which my father took in the 1950s which look just as good today as they did back then. But the developing process is time consuming and tricky. It is also requires a lot of care with all the very environmentally un-friendly chemicals it uses.

When I first got into photography in the early 1960s, I used Kodachrome because color print films in those days faded fairly rapidly with age. I also used AGFA and Kodak's Ektachrome, which is still around. The latter is much easier to develop that Kodachrome - even a hobbyist can do it at home. In the 1980s I switched to print films which had much improved by then and were more convenient to share than slides, and found that Kodak films worked well for pictures in which blues and reds dominated - most California scenes for example - but Fuji films were better with greens and blues - such as Hawaii and Fiji (that's just my subjective opinion). In the last few years, I've switched over entirely to digital picture taking.

Of course, nowadays, digital photography dominates the stage. Kodak gets 70 percent of its business from digital products and Kodachrome is down to less than 1 percent of sales. Due to the complex processing it requires there is only one Kodak certified lab left in the world which handles the film (Dwayne's Photo in Kansas).

The last rolls of the film which Kodak has in stock will be given to the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, N.Y., with one roll first being shot by Steve McCurray. I wonder what his subjects will be?

6 comments:

Don Snabulus said...

That was a great introduction and history. Kodachrome lasted longer than DOS, any version of Windows, and many other products.

It was nice to here the song again as well. I wonder how such a blatantly product-oriented song would do outside of commercials today. :D Paul Simon made it work though.

HappySurfer said...

Insightful history. Thanks for sharing it.

Great video - song and images. Makes you appreciate being alive. Happy summer, PandaB.

ladybug said...

Very nice Panda, and yes I remember well that picture of the Afghani girl on National Geographic. My dad still gets that magazine to this day....

A bit sad, but as you say also, a very chemical laden product...and the process to develop it even more so.

Strange when this pass into history like this...a weird feeling. I've been watcing the Rockford files on Hulu and that place sure doesn't exist anymore.

Pandabonium said...

Don - thanks. I also wonder what kind of product would be the subject of such a song these days.

HappySurfer - Happy summer to you too.

Ladybug - Nation Geographic is the only magazine subscription that I have. Rockford files - that's going back a ways. What's a Hulu?

nzm said...

Indeed, the end of an era.

Made more poignant by the fact the Simon and Garfunkel are currently on a revival tour and have just played in New Zealand and Australia!

The machines used to process Kodachrome (K14 processing) were huge, complicated pieces of equipment. I remember seeing the one in the Kodak lab in Auckland, NZ before they moved it to Australia. It must have been about 50' long.

Ektachrome (E6 processing) is by far a more simpler affair. Our E6 processor was about 8' long.

Photographing with slide film was an exact affair. If you didn't get the exposure correct, then the slides wouldn't look that great, and there was nothing that could be done to fix them after processing. I'm glad that I learned how to shoot with slide and print film. I believe that it makes my digital imagery processing a lot easier when I have a properly exposed image to start with.

Awesome recount of Kodachrome's history, PB!

Pandabonium said...

Thanks NZM. I do think that learning to shoot a film camera, with controls for speed and f-stop, does prepare one to take better pictures, even in the digital age.

A 50' long processor. Wow. My dad was into black and white film which he processsed himself in a small hand held tank, then made his own prints using an enlarger. As a kid, watching the picture emerge in the developer tray was awe inspiring - some would say magical.